Could Alaskan Cruises Still Sail in 2021?

Will cruises to Alaska still sail this year? It’s far from certain, but there is at least a glimmer of hope.

Ship docked in Skagway, Alaska on cruise

The 2021 Alaskan sailing season was thought to be lost for the second year in a row when Canada extended a ban on large cruise ships sailing in its waters until February 2022.

This ban, which Cruzely covered here, stated that any “cruise vessels carrying more than 100 people” could no longer sail or stop in Canada.

At the time, that announcement seemed to put an end to any sort of large-scale Alaskan cruise season.

As explained in detail here, cruise ships departing American ports must make a stop in a foreign country due to being foreign-flagged. Nearly every cruise ship flies under the flag of a foreign nation.

Most trips heading to Alaska depart Seattle and make a quick stop in Canada (typically Victoria, British Columbia) before arriving back in the United States and letting passengers off. Without the ability to make the Canadian stop on the trip, foreign-flagged ships sailing from the U.S. would potentially face fines from American authorities.

This same situation played out last year at the start of the pandemic. Canada closed to cruise ships to help curb the spread of COVID, and the Alaskan season was lost, even if ships had been given the “ok” to sail again from the United States.

Now, however, as virus cases plummet at the same time that vaccines roll out to millions around the world, there is hope that cruises can get back to sailing — possibly this summer. And there are at least some rumblings that the Alaskan cruise season could make a comeback.

Cruise Lines Offer Signs of Hope for Alaskan Sailings

View of an Alaskan cruise

In an investor call yesterday, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. CEO Frank Del Rio addressed the situation. He highlighted the impact that the loss of a second-consecutive Alaskan cruise season would have on ports, but also offered some signs of hope.

“Thankfully the Canadian order allows for the suspension to be rescinded based on improvement in public health,” Del Rio said. “We remain cautiously optimistic that a rescission may be possible. And in the meantime, we await the results of several Alaskan delegation-led initiatives, which we want to acknowledge today and greatly appreciate, that may allow Alaska cruises to operate in 2021.”

He did admit that it is “difficult to predict” the outcome and that his company has suspended new bookings for Alaska in 2021. Still, he said Norwegian is “hopeful” about Alaskan sailings this year.

Norwegian isn’t the only company that is seeming to hold out hope. Royal Caribbean is offering its booked passengers the ability to cancel Alaskan sailings if they like, but hasn’t officially cancelled trips.

A notice on their website dated February 12, 2021 says the following:

On February 5th, 2021 the Canadian government announced continued port closures for all cruise ship travel through February 2022, which may have left you wondering what would happen with your upcoming sailing. Over the last few days, we’ve been reviewing our itineraries and discussing our options with various government agencies to determine the best plan of action for your cruise. We ask for your continued patience as we work diligently on next steps in light of this recent government mandate.

We understand that you may be eager to either book a new cruise or work on alternate vacation plans. So, we’ve emailed you and your travel partner with a breakdown of your options which include selecting one of the following:

• Wait for an Updated Itinerary or Official Cancellation

• Select a New Sailing

• Opt-in for a 125% Future Credit

• Receive a 100% Refund

U.S. Government Offering Support

One reason that cruise lines show some signs of hope that the Canadian government might change their mind on the cruise ship ban is that the U.S. Congress is also pushing for a re-consideration.

According to CruiseIndustryNews, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure sent a letter to the Canadian Ambassador, urging the Canadian government work with the U.S. to allow cruise ship stops.

“As public servants, we must focus on protecting the public health and safety of citizens, while at the same time providing opportunities for economic recovery,” the letter said.

The letter went on to say that one possible solution is a revised order that would let cruise ships stop in Canada, but not disembark passengers.

In addition, Alaska Congressman Don Young has introduced a new bill — the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act. This proposal would be a temporary action to deem roundtrip cruises from Washington to Alaska (the most popular route) as foreign voyages. In this case, even if Canada continues to ban cruise ships, Alaskan cruises could still sail.

“The COVID-19 pandemic devastated Alaska’s 2020 cruise season; we must not allow the same to happen to 2021’s season,” said Congressman Young. “Under current law, the PVSA (Passenger Vessel Services Act) requires cruise ships to make a foreign stop in between domestic port stops. Canada’s decision to close its waters effectively cancels the 2021 cruise season and cripples the industry in Alaska and the pacific northwest.”

“My bill is simple: the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act provides a temporary fix by designating roundtrip cruises as foreign voyages, creating a workaround for the PVSA. Now it is incumbent upon the Biden Administration and the CDC to work quickly and collaboratively to implement a plan to safely resume cruising.”

Cruise Lines Sounding More Optimistic About a Return

It may seem to be putting the horse before the cart to fight for Canada to open — or bypass the current law regarding stops outside the United States — when the CDC has yet to allow sailing itself.

However, while cruise lines continue to push back their return dates, there are positive signs that cruising could return, possibly during the summer. Virus cases have plummeted, while tens of millions of American have already received vaccinations.

Cruise industry executives have repeatedly sounded more optimistic about a return in recent investor calls. This includes Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. CEO Frank Del Rio saying, “Today I would tell you that we are in a better place, a more encouraging place than we were even just six weeks ago. At the end of the day, I think the prevalence of the disease, in our own country and around the world will be the greatest indicator of when we can resume cruising. And the prevalence is dropping.”

So while the likelihood of a return to sailing from the United States continues to improve as cases fall, it has yet to be seen if the Alaskan season will be able to make a comeback as well.

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